Kentucky’s Districts of Innovation program shows: Not much interest in innovating

During Monday’s Kentucky Tonight show about charter schools, some comments were made about Kentucky’s Districts of Innovation (DOI) program. Some anti-charter folks have tried to claim DOIs eliminate the need for charter schools, but secretary of the Education and Workforce Development Cabinet Hal Heiner quickly challenged that notion on the show.

Most tellingly, Sec. Heiner pointed out that the DOI program has been around since 2012, but after four years a whopping total of only 10 school districts among the 173 in Kentucky have ever entered the program.

Interestingly, some of those 10 DOIs were already known for better programs and innovation before the program ever started (see listing of all DOIs here).

For example, the Bluegrass Institute highlighted the Eminence Independent School District back in 2012 before the DOI program was really up and running. Eminence already was making amazing innovations for students. Perhaps the program has helped Eminence a bit more (hopefully), but this district mastered the art of seeking out better ways to educate long before DOI ever started.

Taylor County is another example of innovating before it was deemed cool by the DOI law.

BIPPS also highlighted strong performance in the Corbin Independent School District that preceded the DOI program, too.

On the other hand, the Jefferson County Public School District’s foray into the DOI program to date has to be summarized as something along the lines of a disaster.

First of all, it took Jefferson County forever to even launch its first two schools as supposed innovators.

Then, those first two JCPS innovation schools, Maupin Elementary and the Atkinson Academy, landed at and near the bottom, respectively, in the district in recent KPREP testing (see their math results here).

Both wound up as “Focus Schools” as well.

The situation is so bad that JCPS tried to quietly revamp its innovation program, but their attempted secrecy got busted by alert reporters in Louisville.

In any event, as of late 2016, with only 10 out of 173 school districts participating in DOI – less than six percent – there’s not much interest in innovating in Kentucky’s traditional public school system, at least as far as this program goes. Charter schools can’t help but do this better.

KY Ed. Secretary gets it right about Maryland charter schools

KET’s Kentucky Tonight discussion on charter schools yesterday was nothing if not lively. With Kentucky’s Secretary of Education Hal Heiner and “Old Guard” Kentucky Senator Gerald Neal on the panel along with our own Jim Waters and executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Superintendents Tom Shelton, things were bound to be interesting.

However, perhaps most interesting of all for me was a Heiner/Neal back-and-forth about the value of Maryland’s charter schools as a model to build a charter program for Kentucky.

Neal kept pushing Maryland throughout the broadcast until Heiner finally shut him down, saying that Maryland’s charters perform near the bottom.

Wow, I thought. I have not seen anything on that. How do Maryland’s charter schools perform?

Sadly, as Dr. Joseph Waddington, Assistant Professor, Educational Policy Studies & Evaluation, University of Kentucky pointed out to the Kentucky Board of Education last week,

“Not every study meets important thresholds of methodological rigor.”

In fact, a lot of charter research is of poor quality. The iffy quality of the data on charters even extends to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Thanks in part to inadequate student sampling of charter schools, this federal assessment isn’t a very useful tool for charter research. Too often, NAEP scores are not even reported for some states’ charter schools. For example, Indiana and Massachusetts scores for charter schools are not available from the 2015 NAEP.

Still, I decided to take a look at what the NAEP does report for eighth grade reading and math in charters in Maryland and other states. I got a mild surprise when I did that.

It turns out that while many charter states such as Indiana and Massachusetts were missing score information, Maryland and a number of other states did have scores both for their total charter school population and for their black students. When I ranked those scores using the NAEP Data Explorer’s Statistical Significance testing tools, Maryland did indeed wind up consistently around the bottom end of the NAEP stack for both math and reading in Grade 8 testing for all students.



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How’s that? Major Common Core supporter faults Kentucky’s honesty in reporting student proficiency

I didn’t make this up. The Collaborative for Student Success recently posted “The Results Are In: High Standards Are Leading to Better Outcomes.”

It includes a national map showing states that supposedly are doing a more honest job of reporting student proficiency rates and annual testing.

Here’s the map.


Kentucky’s light gray shading doesn’t look like a good thing when it comes to reporting honesty.

So, maybe we need to take those claims about education progress in Kentucky with a grain of salt. Per the Collaborative for Student Success, that might be more due to inflated test results rather than real improvement.

Bluegrass Beacon: Joy to Kentucky counties! The courts rightly rule

BluegrassBeaconLogoChristmas arrived early in the Bluegrass State this year as courts in different legal spheres rendered welcomed decisions.

First, the Kentucky Supreme Court by a 6-1 vote struck down Louisville’s minimum-wage ordinance passed in 2014 forcing all metro-area employers to pay workers at least $9 an hour by July 2017 – $1.75 higher than the statewide minimum wage. The rate already had risen to $8.25 this past summer.

The Supreme Court’s decision also overturns Lexington’s Urban County Council’s move last year to up the city’s minimum wage to $10.10 an hour by July 1, 2018, in incremental steps, beginning with the first hike to $8.20 this past summer.

While employers in these cities no longer must pay the higher rates, most will likely continue doing so rather than reduce workers’ pay.

While forcing continually higher minimum wages on local business owners certainly would help existing employees with a bit of a higher wage, a very real but unknown cost exists in the number of young people, especially college students – aplenty in especially Louisville and Lexington – who would not be able to find critically needed jobs next summer as employers wouldn’t be able to afford to pay workers more than they contribute.

Besides, minimum-wage policies aren’t for supporting families. They provide bridges for people needing temporary help and ladders for workers seeking to get feet in doors.

Kudos to the Kentucky Supreme Court for protecting these bridges and ladders.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals also handed Kentucky another recent legal victory, reversing Obama appointee and Louisville federal District Court Judge David Hale’s ruling that national labor law prevents counties from passing their own right-to-work ordinances.

A dozen Kentucky counties have passed such laws, which protect workers from being fired for choosing not to join a union or pay dues.

The appeals court sprinkled some glitter on this package’s pretty red bow by chastising Hale for the tortured opinion he released – after forcing all parties to wait six long months – in which he displayed an amazing degree of judicial amateurishness by claiming it was “not a logical reading” of the law for counties to assume they could pass such ordinances.

“Yet, it absolutely is a logical reading,” the higher – and legally sturdier – court said.

It certainly is a “logical reading” by counties of the Kentucky General Assembly’s County Home Rule Statute, which delegates to local governments the authority to legislate in ways that “promote economic development” and to “regulate commerce” by passing ordinances that don’t conflict with existing state laws.

Still, some think the two rulings are contradictory.

“So counties can vote in ‘Right to Work’ (for less) legislation, but cannot vote in minimum wage laws that are higher than the state level,” Susan Decker Davis of Lexington wrote on her Facebook page in response to the Lexington Herald-Leader’s coverage of the appeals court’s decision. “What’s wrong with this picture?’

Nothing, actually – other than Davis’s assertion that it’s right to work “for less.” Plenty of data show right-to-work policies are beneficial to workers and their companies.

However, there’s nothing contradictory in these court rulings.

Per Louisville attorney Brent Yessin of Protect My Check– part of an effective coalition that’s brought local right-to-work to Kentucky and is involved in taking it to communities in other non-right-to-work states – local governments cannot override the commonwealth’s existing minimum-wage law but can ratify their own right-to-work laws because the state has not acted on that specific issue.

“The state could have passed a right-to-work law but chose not to, and it could have passed a law saying unionized employees had to pay dues,” Yessin explained. “It chose to do neither, instead delegating that and other powers to counties.”

Santa now has given permission to all Kentucky counties to open their right-to-work packages and begin enjoying the increased employment opportunities and tax base such a gift provides.

Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute; Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at Read previously published columns at

Pension python squeezing Kentucky’s economy

futureshocksquareReporter John Cheves covers the state’s retirement systems’ crisis in Tuesday’s Lexington Herald-Leader, citing inadequate funding, weak investment returns and “unrealistic assumptions” regarding public employees and their benefits as the primary contributing factors to Kentucky’s public pension plight.

Two of this stool’s three legs have received a lion’s share of the attention by policymakers.

It is, after all, more politically palatable to talk incessantly about funding and weak investment returns — as most bureaucrats who run these systems and their political pals in the Legislature do — than to confront the primary contributor to the water seeping out of Kentucky’s pension bathtub: costly and unsustainable benefits.

Dr. William Smith, a member of the Bluegrass Institute Pension Reform Team, explains that retroactive benefit enhancements are the primary culprit.

“The funding deficits for KRS (Kentucky Retirement Systems) and KTRS (Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement System) were created by retroactively enhancing benefits previously endowed with an actuarial reserve,” Smith said. “This creates a disparity between the value of reserves and the value of future benefit obligations, converting a relatively innocuous actuarial reserve system into a quasi-pay-as-you-go Ponzi scheme. In other words, benefits are actuarially funded when they are earned, and then arbitrarily enhanced at a later date.”

For example, a County Employees Retirement System (CERS) non-hazardous member hired in 1958 — when the “benefit factor” was 1.25 percent — who retired in 1991 when the benefit factor had increased almost a full percentage point to 2.2 percent, gets an unearned windfall of thousands of dollars during his lifetime in the form of retirement checks that apply the 2.2 percent benefit factor to every year of service — going all the way back to 1958.

By awarding this retiree benefits at the higher level — not just for the years properly funded with “normal cost” payroll contributions, but for every year of service — we have created a pension python that’s squeezing Kentucky’s entire economy using “unrealistic assumptions.”

“If you think of it as a bathtub, the water is going down,” KRS interim executive director David Eager told the Public Pension Oversight Board during its monthly meeting on Monday.

“We are where we are, and we’re going to work to get our way out of it,” Eager said.

However, Kentucky will not “work our way out of it” unless the legislature deals with the politically popular — but illegal and unconstitutional — retroactive benefit enhancements.

Click here for more on the Bluegrass Institute’s pension reform research and ideas.

Overstating Kentucky’s education progress — again

During Monday’s Kentucky Board of Education meeting about charter schools, one presenter again pushed the idea that Kentucky has made great progress on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) since KERA began in 1990. But, the picture that got painted, which only referenced overall average NAEP scores, was incomplete and misleading.

When you only compare overall student NAEP scores for Kentucky to the “all student” scores in other states, it looks like we have made progress. But, the overall numbers do not provide a fair comparison.

As Figure 1, which specifically examines data from the 2015 NAEP Grade 8 Math Assessment, shows, Kentucky’s school enrollment was about 80 percent white while across the nation only about half the students were whites. In some places like California, white students were a notable minority part of the public school enrollment.

Figure 1


So, only looking at overall average scores from NAEP just matches a lot of white student scores in Kentucky against a lot of minority scores found in other states. Thanks to the very large achievement gaps in this country, that doesn’t provide a realistic comparison.

For example, comparing Kentucky’s overall average scores against California’s results means that 82 percent minus 25 percent, or 57 percent of all Kentucky’s students who are whites are being matched to students of other races in California. Many of those California students will be lower-scoring Hispanics and an appreciable proportion of those California Hispanics will be English language learners, as well.

If we compare Kentucky to the nationwide public school results, we are still matching a group amounting to 31 percent of all Kentucky’s students who are whites to students of other races in other parts of the country. That won’t provide an accurate picture of our state’s true performance.

When we do break the 2015 NAEP Grade 8 Math results out by race, Figure 2 shows Kentucky’s performance for its dominant racial group does not look very good.

Figure 2


Our white students scored almost at the very bottom on this national assessment.

So, if you want to fairly compare education performance across the states, you have to break the data out by student subgroups. You are just fooling people, otherwise.

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State school board to consider charter school proposal

It’s an unfortunate truth for Kentucky: despite more than a quarter of a century of aggressive education reform, achievement gaps continue to be a major problem.

The situation is so dramatic that even a most enthusiastic cheerleader for traditional public education, the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, now candidly admits:

…far too many Kentucky students are being denied…opportunity as a result of an education system that has failed to erase barriers due to race, income, language, and learning differences.

So, the Kentucky Board of Education (KBE) has a problem. What makes that problem worse is that Kentucky has already tried many Progressive Education ideas that were supposed to erase the gaps; so far, these attempts have not been successful.

About the only major reform idea Kentucky hasn’t tried is a public charter school program. Of particular interest considering Kentucky’s current gap problems, a growing number of reports – including several presented to the KBE yesterday – indicate that public charter schools show particular success with some of the very same disadvantaged student populations currently under-performing in the commonwealth.

Thus, the KBE held an all-day work session yesterday to learn more about these innovative alternatives to traditional public schools (TPS). During the KBE meeting, various presenters discussed a wide range of topics ranging from the basics of what charter schools are, how they are created in different states and how they operate to their performance with various student populations in various settings such as urban and rural areas.

By the end of the work session, it seemed clear that even the more resistant KBE members now recognize that charter schools are coming to Kentucky, with member Roger Marcum saying:

I’m a realist and I think we’re going to have charter schools in some form or fashion in this state after the legislature meets. Marcum added that the board would be wise to develop a proposal for how Kentucky’s charter school law should be framed.

After all, with 43 states and the District of Columbia now allowing charter schools, the KBE learned there is a growing amount of evidence about better and poorer performing state charter school programs to examine. So, Kentucky doesn’t have to settle for just an average charter school system. Instead, the Bluegrass State has the option to focus its legislation around those places where better charter schools are found because, as Kentuckians know, if you want a top quality race horse, you build your blood line around proven winners.

Ultimately, the formulation of charter school legislation will be up to the state legislature. But, ideas from those who will undoubtedly be part of the team that implements that legislation are certainly worth consideration. Even more importantly, the KBE apparently now accepts the fact that, as education commissioner Stephen Pruitt puts it, Charters could be one tool in the utility belt.”

Charters could indeed be a most useful tool in that belt, if Kentucky really wants to get serious about finally getting the achievement gap under control.

Bluegrass Beacon — Electoral College: Games won, not runs scored

BluegrassBeaconLogoButtercups and snowflakes on college campuses came out to weep, gnash teeth purpled by sour grapes, shove others around and throw bottles because the presidential election didn’t go their way.

Five were arrested at a protest held on Western Kentucky University’s campus in Bowling Green.

But something different happened at Cornell University, where 30 constitutional toddlers showed up for a “Cry In.”

Other universities offered disconsolate students similar opportunities.

The pouters may be on to something better than protests with these “Cry Ins,” which coddle participants by using touchy-feely techniques to help heal their sore inner selves.

The Cornellians were furnished with poster boards, markers, chalk and even hot chocolate to express their grief and soothe their post-election trauma.

Only the marshmallows, campfire and hippie guitarist strumming “Kum ba yah” were missing.

This whole “Cry In” concept could be used as a much more meaningful act of catharsis.

Why not, for instance, hold a “Cry In” to mourn the consequences of building walls between us and the constitutional concepts that have served our nation nobly for more than two centuries?

It’s possible that some attenders of a good crying session about the lack of respect for the 12th Amendment, which established the procedure for voting for a president, might truly find some inner healing by discovering how ingenious this nation’s founders were when they established the Electoral College.

“This land is your land, this land is my land” could replace “Kum ba yah” as attenders stare dreamily into the campfire while reminding themselves that America consists of millions of citizens “from California to the New York Islands, from the Redwood Forest to the gulf stream waters,” Kentucky included.

The founders weren’t naïve in formulating our system whereby voters technically send electors to Washington to represent their states’ choice when casting votes for president every four years.

They ensured that while the larger states had greater numbers of electoral votes reflecting their larger populations – and thus greater influence – they alone did not have the final say.

Other states also are meaningfully engaged in hiring the nation’s commanders-in-chief.

Prepare yourself, however, for the soft weeping to become voluminous bawling at the realization that Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer of California introduced a bill to get rid of the Electoral College, calling it an “outdated, undemocratic system that does not reflect our modern society.”

However, suppose that in next year’s best-of-seven World Series, the Indians won three games by lopsided margins of 10-2, 12-5 and 8-1 while the Cubs won four contest by razor-thin scores of 1-0, 2-1, 3-2 and 4-3.

LeBron James would get laughed out of Wrigley Field if he demanded his Indians get the World Series trophy because they scored more runs in the series even though the Cubs actually won more games.

It would be even more foolish for James to claim that such an approach doesn’t reflect “the best aspect of this sport” when that’s exactly what it does.

It’s just as reckless for Boxer and her ideological allies to claim Hillary Clinton should be president because she got more individual votes even though Trump won more states.

Considering too many schools do a notoriously poor job of teaching students about the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, individual branches of government and our nation’s past wars – especially the Revolutionary War – it should come as no shock that many of these same, poorly educated citizens could also be convinced to change long-successful rules awarding the trophy to the team that scores the most runs rather than the one that wins the most games.

It’s all enough to make citizens who truly understand our system’s greatness tear up a bit themselves.

Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute; Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at Read previously published columns at

High school graduation rates coming under scrutiny

Education Week reports that the US Department of Education has launched an investigation of high school graduation rate claims in both Alabama and California.

At issue are large high school graduation rates that have grown dramatically over time and don’t seem to match other data like the proportion of students who are considered college ready on the ACT.

EdWeek’s article seems to indicate that other states might be under examination, as well. Could Kentucky be one of those?

As our regular readers know, we have been raising serious questions about the obvious lack of quality control over diploma awards in the Bluegrass State’s school districts compared to college and career ready rates and proficiency rates on the state’s Algebra II End-of-Course test. The former comparison is relevant since the state has declared readiness as an education goal for Kentucky. The second comparison is also important because current Kentucky regulations stipulate that graduates will be competent in math through Algebra II.

See our latest series on high school graduation rate quality control problems for more.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

The full charter school advantage: What the CREDO reports overlook

I have written a number of times such as here, here, here, here and even way back when here in our old blog about what I think is the most important finding in an ever growing series of reports on charter schools from The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University.

This important finding: it takes time to move students ahead when they usually enter charter schools with academic performance well behind their peers in the traditional public school system. CREDO has shown repeatedly – even in their very first report from 2009 – that once students spend several years in charter schools, they start to move dramatically ahead of their traditional public school counterparts.

But, CREDO’s research has an important short-coming related to this charters-need-time finding. CREDO shows charter school performance for students who have been in their charter for a year or more, but CREDO doesn’t show how students perform when they first enter a charter.

So, I decided to take a look at data in one of CREDO’s most positive charter school reports, their “Charter School Performance in Louisiana, 8/8/2013.” In its Louisiana report CREDO shows in Figure 9, “Impact by Students’ Years of Enrollment,” that by the time Louisiana students have spent four to five years in a charter, they are about 180 days ahead of their traditional public school counterparts. That is basically a full school year ahead.

But, how were these charter school students performing upon charter entry? CREDO’s graph doesn’t tell us.

So, I extrapolated the CREDO data for years one and two backwards to develop a picture of the charter entry situation. The figure below shows how that worked out.


In this figure, the numbers shown for Year 1, Year 2, Year 3 and Year 4 to 5 are derived from data in CREDO’s Figure 9 using a conversion to “days of learning” discussed in the report (for techies, see more on that at the end of the blog).

The zero horizontal axis in the figure above represents the average performance found in Louisiana’s traditional public schools. So, for example, CREDO shows that at the end of their first year, Louisiana charter students are still about three school days behind in reading and about 14 days ahead in math.

CREDO also shows charter student performance further outpaces the traditional school students as charter students spend more time in Louisiana’s charter system. After students have been in charters from four to five years, they are about 180 days of learning ahead in math and 187 days of learning ahead in reading compared to their traditional public school counterparts. That’s about a full year of extra learning in both subjects.

But, how about what looks like fairly unimpressive performance after the first year in Louisiana’s charters?

Extrapolating the CREDO data backwards to a charter school entry situation, I estimate that the average charter student in Louisiana enters these schools of choice about 58 days behind in math and 85 days behind in reading.

So, charter school students actually start to make notable improvement even in their first year of attendance. But, you can’t see this in CREDO’s reports because they don’t talk about student performance upon charter entry.

Thus, it looks like Louisiana charter students make notable progress even in their first year in charters. It’s something I hope CREDO investigates in more detail in the future. Charter schools don’t get a fair evaluation, otherwise.

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